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Manchin will oppose Trump mine safety nominee


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Wednesday that he will oppose confirmation of a longtime coal industry executive that President Donald Trump nominated to be Assistant Labor Secretary in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

David Zatezalo
In a prepared statement, Manchin said that he had reviewed the qualifications and “record of safety” during David Zatezalo’s time in the coal industry and was “not convinced” that the Wheeling resident “is suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.”

Manchin, whose uncle was among the 78 miners killed in the 1968 Farmington Disaster, noted that “in West Virginia, we are painfully familiar with the human toll that accompanies a mine accident.”

“I have comforted too many families who have lost loved ones serving our nation in the mines,” Manchin said. “Strong leadership at the Mine Safety and Health Administration is non-negotiable.”

Manchin’s statement also noted that 12 coal miners have been killed on the job nationwide so far in 2017, more than the eight that were killed in all of 2016. Six of the fatalities so far were in West Virginia.

“These tragic losses directly illustrate the ongoing need for strong and experienced leadership at MSHA, as well as comprehensive funding for MSHA’s programs,” Manchin said.

In a Saturday morning announcement during Labor Day weekend, Trump nominated Zatezalo to run the Labor Department arm that regulates the safety and health of coal and other types of mining across the nation.

Zatezalo, 62, had retired in late 2014 as chairman of Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at Rhino, including president and chief executive officer and chief operating officer.

In 2010 and 2011, while Zatezalo was a top Rhino executive, the company had a series of run-ins with MSHA over safety and health conditions at mines in West Virginia and Kentucky, during a period when then-MSHA chief Joe Main was ramping up agency enforcement following the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010.

One of Rhino’s mines received back-to-back warning letters from MSHA about a “pattern of violations” at the operation and another Rhino mine was targeted by a rare MSHA lawsuit after agency staffers said they caught officials there providing advance notice of an MSHA inspection to workers underground.

During an interview three weeks ago, Zatezalo would comment on Rhino’s safety issues only by saying that “any problems that existed at Rhino were properly addressed.” Trump administration officials have not responded to questions about Zatezalo’s nomination or his background.

On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions announced that it would hold a hearing on Zatezalo’s nomination at 3 p.m. next Wednesday. If the committee were to approve Zatezalo’s nomination, he would still face a vote by the full Senate. Neither Manchin nor Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., serve on the HELP committee.

Late last week, three Democrats on the committee wrote to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to ask for more information about the safety record of the companies where Zatezalo worked.

The letter from Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Robert Casey, D-Pa., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, asked for details about the “pattern of violations” actions at Rhino Resources, and for documents regarding fatalities at Rhino and at former American Electric Power coal mines while Zatezalo was in management of those companies.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at [email protected], 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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